Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids - Meghan Daum 2016



Michelle Huneven

I WENT TO a fortune-teller when I was twenty-five. Her house was on a busy street, its shingled siding painted a strange marigold orange, the trim a clashing bright red and blue. A banner advertised, “Special: $5.”

The fortune-teller, a pale, sharp-eyed woman in her forties with wild crow-black hair, ran her operation in a dark front room crowded with furniture. Lamp shades were draped with red and purple scarves. A milky cantaloupe-size crystal ball rested on a stand in the middle of a round oak table, but the fortune-teller made no move toward it—clearly the befogged ball was not for bargain shoppers. She had me sit at the table beside her, and she took my right hand. Turning my wrist, smoothing back my fingers, she studied my palm.

“You might as well get used to being poor,” she said. “Money is coming, but it’s a long way off.”

Also, she said, I would contend with a disease, serious but not necessarily life-threatening.

And I would have one child.

I wondered then and afterward about the fortune-teller’s cosmic source: When did that font of future knowledge believe that life began? At conception? Or upon the first intake of breath? Had my one chance at motherhood already come and gone?

I had broken up with my last boyfriend some months before. An agoraphobic actor who lived week to week in a fleabag hotel, he’d already faded from my thoughts. So I was stunned when, during a routine pelvic exam, the doctor palpated my uterus and announced that I was pregnant. Quite pregnant, actually. Close to three months pregnant, the doctor said, which meant that a regrettable instance of breakup sex had caused this. If I wanted to terminate the pregnancy without going into labor, the doctor went on, I should do so within the next few days. I made an appointment for Monday and took the weekend to think it over.

I was living in Pasadena in a funky apartment complex filled with old high school friends. When I left the doctor’s office, that’s where I went.

My best friend said, “Don’t get an abortion—you’ll wreck your karma!”

I worried about my karma, but I had no partner (and I certainly couldn’t be tied to the last one) and no money. I was working part-time in a coffee shop while trying to write. Our lovely low-rent apartment complex didn’t allow children. And even if it had, and even if I had been flush and happily mated, I didn’t feel ready or remotely capable of raising a child. Children seemed as far off as false teeth, and interested me about as much. In fact, kids aroused my impatience and jealousy, especially when their parents fussed over them or, worse, stopped everything to reason with them. I’d grown up without that kind of attention, and I begrudged it to others, even babies.

That Monday, I wrecked my karma.

It was a few weeks after that when I sat with the fortune-teller, palm upturned, and wondered if I still had one child in my future, or if, along with my karma, I’d blown my one chance. I was in no hurry to find out. If motherhood was in the cards, it was still far, far off.

First comes love. And love is what I craved. A great, transformational love. Love that would fill the nauseating pitch-black void lodged somewhere behind my sternum.

My late twenties and early thirties were spent in a series of time-consuming, life-swallowing love affairs. A great deal of drinking was also involved. I’d discovered alcohol’s magical properties in high school: here, at last, was a way to feel at home in the world. Alcohol instantly removed my psychic pain. I drank daily (but not, initially, to excess) from age eighteen on.

Meanwhile, my friends got married. They married each other, or friends of friends, or someone they met at work or at a party. Nobody was making the great love match of the century. Nor was anybody in a great hurry to have children. Birth control had been a big game changer in that regard; we boomers could put off having children. And we all did.

But then, in our thirties, a shift. By the late eighties, babies began to arrive.

One friend said that buying a house made her want to fill the rooms.

Another friend was so in love with her much-older husband, she had to have his babies.

Two friends had difficulty conceiving. After years of frustration and heartbreak, they both tried IVF; one couple produced a baby, the other couple ended up adopting the daughter of a fifteen-year-old from Bakersfield.

Still-single friends longing for children lowered their standards for mates; one took on the town drunk, rehabilitating him long enough for him to marry and impregnate her.

Another friend, at forty-one, seduced a twenty-year-old box boy at the local supermarket, and raised their beautiful son as a single mom.

I waited to feel what my friends did. Or an inkling thereof.

I attended the baby showers and loathed the fussy luncheons, the cringeworthy games (condoms unscrolled on bananas, dimes held between knees), and especially the tedious ceremonial unwrapping and passing around of presents, the tiny onesies, hand-knit blankies, baby-food grinders.

Dutifully, I showed up at the hospitals to meet the new humans. I kissed their hot snuffling faces, gathered them, all bundled in flannel and terry cloth, into my arms; holding them made me deliciously sleepy and relaxed. But it didn’t make me want one of my own.

“You should have a baby,” a friend reported the day after giving birth, “if only to feel the great tidal wave of love that crashes through you.”

I didn’t want to feel such love for someone else. I still wanted to be the object of that tidal wave.

I knew better than to voice this, of course. Ashamed of such a selfish, infantile craving, I kept it secret. But I knew that so long as I begrudged a child love and attention, I would never be a good parent, and it was wise not to become one.

Meanwhile, these tiny newcomers changed my friendships. Anything a baby did—chortle, fart, emit a piercing scream—trumped whatever we adults were talking about. Conversations, once our great pleasure, were now sound bites snatched between negotiations over toys and candy. One friend who lived forty miles away had me over for dinner—her husband was out of town, so we’d have a whole night to talk! Before dessert, she went to put her three-year-old to bed. And never came back. I called out to her a few times, at intervals. In all, I sat at the table for more than an hour, politely refraining from the pot de crème.

Then I drove the forty miles home.

With second children, friends disappeared fully into family life. They were inducted into new modes of socializing that I did not envy or wish to join: kiddie birthday parties and group camping trips with other young families and the rare fragment of adult conversation. Even as I grieved the damping off of these long-enjoyed friendships, I was never tempted to join the ranks of motherhood.

I had no interest in having a family or being in one.

For as far back as I can remember, I was nonplussed and somewhat horrified by the family I was born into. In fact, my first clearly articulated thought—it came to me when I was probably two and a half or three, standing in the front yard by the myoporum hedge—had to do with my parents: Who are these people? Why are they acting that way? And how is it that I’ve come to live among them?

I didn’t know the word neurotic, then. But I had the sense, even so young, that my parents overreacted, that they got too worked up over little things, and their responses were often volatile, frantic, and out of all proportion to the issues at hand.

My mother was a diabetic whose pancreas intermittently produced insulin, which made her moods fluctuate wildly. Trained as a concert pianist at the Oberlin Conservatory, she was bored stiff as a stay-at-home mom. She went back to school for her teaching credential when I was six, and went to work when I was seven. She was less bored then, but far from emotionally stable. Anxiety carbonated her blood. Her voice trembled with self-pity, and she often teetered between fury and sobbing; it took nothing—a child’s question, a book out of place—to pitch her over into one or the other. She was quick to feel slights. I once dared to ask if we could go into a department store just one time without her asking to see a manager. She nursed grudges—at one point, she didn’t talk to my ten-year-old sister for over two weeks.

Our dinner table was her stage; she told long, ongoing sagas that took place in the faculty rooms of schools where she taught; she detailed the rivalries and jealousies of her hapless colleagues, their bad teaching and awful clothes and miserable marriages or love lives. Nobody met her standards. These nightly installments passed for conversation in our home. I often think I became a writer because for the first fifteen years of my life, I never got a word in edgewise.

We daughters were a continuous source of disappointment to her. My sister was overweight. I had wispy, spiderweb hair. Her disapproval hung in our house like a smell. We somehow could never be the well-groomed, seen-and-never-heard girls she’d imagined. Also, we had likes and dislikes, wills, and we wanted things: toys and cereals advertised on TV, trendy clothes, permission to go to a friend’s house. Our desires, and often our very presence, annoyed and inconvenienced her.

She could not abide (let alone find amusement in) any of our quirks of personality, or preferences, or aversions.

I told her about my terrible cramps when I started menstruating; she wouldn’t believe me. She’d never had cramps.

My father was distant, uninvolved, mild enough for long stretches, only to explode into violent verbal rages if milk was spilled, or we asked for spending money, or, heaven forbid, he found coins on the floor. We neither knew nor cared about money, he’d yell, and how hard he had to work to support us, and how expensive we were. Periodically, he totted up how much he’d spent on us, and how much we’d cost him in the long run, and announced these hair-raising sums to us as debts we could barely imagine or ever begin to repay.

As elementary school teachers, both my parents were devoted to their work. My mother, especially, took a great interest in her students, at least the best ones. Every fall, before the start of the semester, she would review the cumulative reports of her incoming students, and she would call out the highest IQs in her class. 152! 148! 160! She loved best the challenge of a bright but unresponsive or underperforming student. “I must figure out how to reach Arnold!… I haven’t reached Arnold yet.… I think I finally reached Arnold today!”

My sister and I had decent IQs, too. But my mother never even tried “reaching” us. In fact, neither parent showed any interest in our schoolwork (although a B in any subject would get us grounded).

They took no interest, either, in how we filled the hours after school, beyond discouraging us from making friends with the neighborhood kids, as they were “lower class” and not intelligent enough. I ignored my mother’s disapproval and ran with a neighborhood gang whenever I could. Friends became my consolation, my refuge, but I had to meet them on their turf. If they ever came over to my house, they usually declined to come back. My parents’ incessant bickering discomfited them, as did my mother’s hovering, her abrupt manner and pointed questions (“So tell me, Mary, does your mother allow you to keep your room so messy?”). None of my friends could tolerate the tense atmosphere in our house. The chimes of psychic pain.

Home was a place I was always alone.

My sister, who was two years older, retreated into her room early on. There, she practiced the violin, studied, and ate compulsively in secret. (Discovering the balm of food at age six, she has said, was a great moment in her life.)

Alone, I read. I took apart toys and my lamp, my miniature sewing machine, then my mother’s Singer, and reassembled them. One evening, I took a project outside to the end of our driveway to work under the streetlight. I was eight, I think, and with some odd scraps of Naugahyde, cardboard, a stapler, and scissors, I endeavored to make shoes. A neighbor, out for a walk after work, stood and observed me for a long time as I measured and cut. I remember this vividly because it was the most prolonged and focused adult attention I’d ever experienced.

My sister would later dub our parents’ strategy “strict neglect.”

They did not know how to play with us, or be close, or converse amicably, without criticism. But they did want us well educated, and they exposed us to a wide range of experience. We had music lessons, swimming lessons; my sister learned to ride. There was never any question but that the two of us would go to college. We also did many things “as a family”: on weekends, we went to museums, concerts, good movies and plays; we camped and took summerlong driving trips (to Alaska, to Guatemala, all across Canada). Eventually, my father built a cabin in the Sierras for weekend use. From the outside, our family looked adventurous, fun loving. Were we more convivial, happier, in those tents, cars, campers, and cabin? Rarely. In close quarters, our mother and her moods still dominated, and we girls withdrew, each into her own solitude.

My parents blithely acknowledged the discrepancy between how they dealt with their students and how they dealt with us. Countless times one or the other declared, “Parents are amateurs, but teachers are professionals.”

Indeed, it was deep in the intimate, hidden recesses of family that their volatility and emotional immaturity raged unchecked.

Many times, my mother declared that if my father ever so much as laid a finger on her, she’d leave him on the spot. However, both parents slapped and spanked with abandon—flat-handed wallops to the face that juttered my teeth; they used rulers and hairbrushes and flyswatters, badminton racquets, whatever was in reach. Someone gave my sister and me an Eskimo yo-yo and I refused to thank her; I knew I’d feel its broad flat smack soon enough. (I did.) Through high school, I could tell by the way my mother entered the house when she came home from work—the swing of the door, the drop of her handbag, the tenor of her sighs—how ill-tempered she was, and therefore, the likelihood of my being struck in the next few minutes. She would come to my room and accuse me of something—not hanging up my clothes or forgetting to put down the lid of the laundry hamper. I would deny it or try to explain; that would be “talking back” and would earn a slap or worse.

My parents’ theory of corporal punishment distinguished between hitting and beating. They were very open about, even proud of, their method. Lower-class people beat and left marks. Middle-class people hit hard enough to sting and humiliate, and “to bring on a catharsis,” as my father liked to say, but not so hard that they bruised. Lingering redness didn’t count. I occasionally had a dappling of black-and-blue marks on my upper arms where my mother’s fingers dug in, but these didn’t count either.

Now, many people come from homes where the physical abuse far exceeded the slaps and spanks and arm grabbing at my house, yet they still want kids and set out to correct the mistakes their parents made, and even consciously address the intergenerational patterns of violence. I have friends from families long ridden with addiction, abuse, and poverty who have become loving, responsible, sober parents and made safe, calm homes for their children.

So why did neither my sister nor I ever want to “do it right” and live in a family of our own making? My sister knew all along that she never wanted children—although she’s a violin teacher who works with and delights in children daily. I never took such a defiant or conclusive stance. Day to day, the desire for children never quite formed and surfaced, and certainly never to the degree where I eyed the town drunk or the box boy.

What kept the desire from even taking shape?

A friend who grew up with an alcoholic father said that despite her father’s disease and the toll it took on the family, children were wanted and cherished in their home. This friend has two beloved children, now adults.

My mother clearly had wanted children; as a somewhat brittle diabetic, she had them even knowing that pregnancy and birth could endanger her life. But at a certain point—once we acquired wills—she had no idea what to do with us. I must have heard her say a hundred times, whenever she saw or held a baby, “Don’t you wish you could just pickle them at this stage?”

I was ten when my sister and I went into her room to see her stretched out on the bed, refusing the sugared orange juice my father urged her to drink. She was “low”: a sudden, unpredictable infusion of insulin had sent her blood sugar plummeting. “Who are these goddamn children?” she cried to my father, slurring her words as if drunk. “Make them go away. I don’t want any children. Get rid of them.”

I heard this not with surprise or even deep pain, but with a sense of relief. Finally. Finally, what I’d long suspected had been spoken. She had thought she wanted kids, but once she had them, she really didn’t. We failed to bring her happiness.

It seemed certain that children wouldn’t bring me happiness either.

My experience of living in my family had deeply instilled a sense that behind the closed doors of a family’s home, all respect disappeared; disapproval, anger, and other emotions ran unchecked, and a domestic form of war prevailed, with war’s oscillations between overt violence and tense calm.

Even as I learned that not all families were like this, I didn’t trust myself not to re-create what I had known.

I believe it was no coincidence that I waited to marry until it was biologically impossible for me to have a family.

I left to go away to college a month after I turned sixteen, and I never lived at home again. I decided I wanted to be a writer, and that became my focus and passion, although it would be years before I settled down into regular work habits. My college career was spotty; restless and discontented, I attended three different schools. But my focus on writing was constant; I went to graduate school for an MFA, and spent the rest of my twenties trying to write publishable prose.

In my thirties I began to scrape together a living writing freelance articles while struggling to write my first novel. Again and again, I fell hard for remote, often unavailable men and tried, unsuccessfully, to make them love me. Love was my grand distraction. My drinking slowly slid into excess, until, at thirty-four, I had a moment of clarity: I realized that I could improve neither my writing nor myself if I was getting drunk every night.

That year I went into therapy, got sober, and landed steady work, which together set me firmly on the long, twisting ascent to my present contentment. En route, I abandoned my efforts to make the disinterested love me, and I learned to recognize and appreciate the genuinely interested. I published countless articles for magazines and newspapers and, finally, in my early forties, the first of several novels. Writing absorbed me. I felt lucky to have such a passion. If a certain restlessness or emptiness assailed me in all those years of dwindling fertility, I never perceived it as a biological imperative to reproduce, but as part of the ups and downs of a creative life.

Several times, I voiced concern over my childlessness to several writer friends of mine, women who had kids. “Don’t do it!” they chorused. “Write unimpeded!” I didn’t “take” their advice so much as I used it to justify my ongoing childless state.

I always assumed that someday, at some vague, distant point, I’d become a fit and willing parent. With years of therapy, I did outgrow my resentment toward and impatience with kids, and I got a handle on that driving need for parental attention and love; I accepted, with some sorrow, that it was too late to get that particular package—your chance for it comes only once in life. I understood more about my parents, too, about diabetes and mood swings, and about how my father grew up in a home where bruising beatings and potentially mortal combat took place.

I became more able and even somewhat willing to be a parent, but by the time that happened, and by the time I met a man who might be a wonderful father, we were too old and, as he likes to say, too set in our ways. And just because I was a little more willing and a lot more able to be a parent didn’t mean I was itching to become one. Or could. Indeed, two months before our wedding—I was fifty-two—I stopped menstruating and developed hot flashes: a new version of the blushing bride.

I would say that originally, I was childless due to damage. But ultimately, I did come to the place of choosing. After all, my husband and I could have adopted or possibly undergone one of those newfangled fertility procedures. But there were many other considerations, then. Did we want to be seventy when our child graduated from high school? And that’s assuming we got right on it—did we want to spend the first months of marriage meeting with adoption lawyers? If we waited five years, did we want to be seventy-five on graduation day?

I have no regrets. I have been grateful for the freedom not to have children—it is a relatively new freedom, unknown to most women throughout history. At times, I feel like a pioneer, a woman who has had access to countless new opportunities, including the chance to craft a life best suited to her own skills and temperament. Here, I stand in contrast to my mother, who took up marriage and family by default, because the job for which she’d actually been trained, concert pianist, did not exist for women.

It’s not as if I consciously chose a career over having children, or that my career particularly benefitted from my childlessness. The time I didn’t spend on raising kids, I squandered on love affairs and staring out windows; it took me many years after grad school to establish discipline in my work. But I did get to build a life around writing, and it became a very good life, one in which I was able to work through my lonely, difficult, contradictory childhood without unconsciously inflicting all that residual pain on innocents.

While writing this essay, I discussed it with the old friend who warned me about wrecking my karma when I was pregnant so long ago—she and I have known each other now for forty-seven years. She’d forgotten her warning, because this time, talking about how poor we all were and how lost I was back then, she exclaimed, “Thank God you didn’t have that baby!”

What maternal stirrings I’ve had, I feel, have been satisfactorily redirected. Some of those snuffling, hot babies I kissed in their first swaddlings are now adult friends. I have friends who are in grammar school, and my favorite movie date for the past six or seven years is presently a junior in high school. I also teach creative writing to undergraduates, and work closely with several younger women writers.

The fortune-teller I saw at twenty-five proved correct in all her predictions. I was poor for decades, finally getting comfortable in my fifties. In my twenties and early thirties, I grappled with alcoholism—a serious but not necessarily fatal disease; I have been sober now for twenty-six years. And I know, too, on which side the fortune-teller’s cosmic source fell in the debate over when life begins. The one child sent to me by fate, I chose not to have.

I can live with that.